When the House of God Doesn’t Feel Like Home

Twelve weeks ago, when our in-person services were suspended, I daydreamed about walking through the church doors once again, bare-faced, hugging my friends, proudly carrying my newborn son. Instead, we’ll be peeking over masks from six feet away with a baby who by now is hardly new. 

Walking through the doors will bring a different range of emotions for each of us, but suffice it to say, we’ll all be disappointed. We’re grieving for the worship experience we remember. 

The Latter Temple

As the Israelites began returning from their 70-year exile in Babylon, the glorious temple built by Solomon (2 Chronicles 3) was in ruins. When the foundation for a new temple was laid, most of the people rejoiced—but many of the elders who remembered the old temple wept over how much less glorious the new one would be (Ezra 3:12). 

The completion of the temple seventeen years later caused a new round of mourning: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?” (Haggai 2:3). 

God, through his prophet Haggai, exhorted his people to “be strong … for I am with you” (Haggai 2:4). The glory of the former temple had never been in its gold or its cedar, but in God’s presence. “My Spirit remains in your midst,” he told his people, so they need not grieve the loss of a particular building (Haggai 2:5).

More than that, God promised that “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:9). The latter glory that brings peace is widely understood to be Jesus. The new temple is where Jesus was dedicated, where Simeon declared him to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

Like many prophecies, Haggai’s declaration of “latter glory” has a second layer of meaning, pointing to the final glory when God’s people will not gather at a building to worship but will dwell with God and worship before his throne. God, through Haggai, called his people to not look back to Solomon’s temple, but to look ahead to what the glory of Solomon’s temple prefigured. 

The Latter Glory

It is fitting to grieve our losses in our new worship logistics: losses of intimacy, comfort, focus, connection. When the elders wept over the new foundation, God did not chastise them. It was acceptable to have mixed emotions: “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping” (Ezra 3:13). 

We cannot remain in our grief, however: “Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:4). Though stifled behind masks and distanced by six feet, we must continue the work of the church—to worship and serve our Savior. We can persevere, despite awkwardness and discomfort, because what makes the church “the church” is still present: “My Spirit remains in your midst,” declares the Lord (Haggai 2:5)! 

God is present with his people! Church may not look how we hoped. But God is still the Lord of hosts, Jesus has still saved us from our sins, and the Spirit still dwells in us, so we have all that we need to worship. 

Finally, we must remember, like the Israelites, that our earthly worship services are a foreshadow of eternity. We have never worshiped perfectly; our minds wander, our hearts are cold, our strength wavers. But a glorious day is coming when God’s church—the whole bride of Christ, not divided into local congregations or spread across time—will sing God’s praises loud and long, side by side before the throne. 

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Prayer in the Newborn Days

Guys, I’m tired. We’re way past “watch a movie or read for a bit to recharge.” This is systemic, sleep deprived, newborn tired. 

The adult body needs 6–8 hours of sleep a night, but no one told babies that. For a few weeks we were fortunate to snatch one or two hours at a time overnight, or maybe less on a rough night. It’s getting marginally better, but wow could I do with one good night’s sleep. 

We all have something that we want, that our prayers return to again and again. Maybe for you it’s physical healing, a new job, greater patience, or a better relationship with your spouse, sibling, or child. I can’t speak for you, but when I pray I want to ask boldly—but also recognize “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). 

I’ve been using Psalm 63:5–8 to guide my prayers.

My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

I do a lot of “remembering [God] upon my bed … in the watches of night” these days. I would really like to be “satisfied as with fat and rich food” with a good several hours of sleep! 

The satisfaction mentioned in this Psalm, however, comes not from receiving what I want, like good food or sleep, but from remembering and meditating on God: “for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy” (Psalm 63:7). 

It’s not wrong to ask God for sleep. My body works better with adequate sleep. When I’m rested, it’s easier to be patient with my daughter, husband, and very needy son and to maintain a positive outlook on the thankless parts of the newborn days.

Psalm 63 reminds me that my truest desire, what my soul clings to and what upholds me, must be God himself. If he upholds me by providing sleep, then wonderful! But if it’s another sleepless night, then I can cling to God and trust him to uphold me another way. 

Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). We’re taught elsewhere that the God who clothes the lilies will surely meet our needs (Luke 12:27–31). God met our deepest need in redeeming us from our sin through Jesus. He also sent the Holy Spirit to live in us, to guide us and sustain us while we are on earth. The Spirit hears my sleepy and sometimes wobbly prayers and intercedes for me before the Father (Romans 8:26–27). 

There’s tremendous comfort in this truth, but also a call to obedience. It’s tempting to use my lack of sleep to excuse sin, such as being short-tempered. My thinking sounds like Adam in the garden (Gen. 3:12): “The night’s sleep you gave me was too short, so I snapped at my husband.” I must rely on the Holy Spirit to change me and equip me to do right and avoid sin, just as much as I lean on him to supply the energy to change the next diaper. And when I fail, I cling to God’s reliable forgiveness and love: “your right hand upholds me” (Psalm 63:8).

I’ve tried to shape my prayers more along these lines: “God, please give me sleep tonight! Or, please give me the divine strength and stamina for the next day.” 

This makes it sound like I’m a content, spiritually satisfied person every day. Nope—I still really want sleep, and if I’m honest, in my flesh I want sleep more than I want to cling to God. So I re-read the note card by my bed where I wrote these verses, and pray for God to reorient my heart toward him.

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Book Review: Labor with Hope: Gospel Meditations on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Motherhood

My mom volunteers at her home church to coordinate their rather robust library. She snapped a picture of a new book she was preparing for circulation and texted it to me, asking if I wanted to read it before she put it on the shelf. Being about four weeks from my due date at the time, it seemed like the right read at the right time, so I said yes. 

The book was Labor with Hope: Gospel Meditations on Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Motherhood by Gloria Furman (with Jesse Scheumann), and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who relates to any version of childbearing or child rearing. 

First, the chapters are short. At an average of 3–5 pages per chapter (and only 151 in the book), Furman gets not only that less is sometimes more, but also that five minutes of attention may be the most a person, especially her primary audience of moms, has to devote to reading. (They’re also a good length for reading in the waiting room of an OBGYN.)

Second, Furman takes an inclusive view of motherhood. She recognizes the labor of the months of gestation and the months (or years) of the adoption process, conception by traditional means and with medical intervention, raising children from infancy and entering their lives later. She not only leaves room for the “non-traditional” mother but seats her at the head of the table. 

Third, this book delivers on its promise of gospel hope. If you want pages of witty, relatable mommy moments sprinkled with Bible verses, this is not for you. Instead, this book offers unshakeable hope rooted in the whole of Scripture. 

Furman’s premise is that God is not like us, but rather we are like God. Our human experience of birth and mothering reflects aspects of God, rather than God simply using a familiar experience to explain himself. A core example from the book is that women suffer to bring forth children because Jesus suffered on the cross to bring forth his own people.

Scripture uses the image of childbearing frequently and in a variety of contexts. It’s used to describe God’s judgment, his relationship with Israel, and Paul’s labor among the churches, among a long list of others. Furman makes a thorough, though not comprehensive, study of each of them. The book is a rich dive into what Scripture says about childbirth and rearing and how that should affect our view of the vocation of mothers. 

Furman talks about Jesus All. The. Time. She talks about Jesus way more than she talks about the tasks of mothering, like changing diapers and preparing snacks. This is not a particularly practical book, in that she doesn’t offer tips on discipline, meal times, or family devotions. But it achieves its goal as a series of meditations on both hope for moms and the hope motherhood points to. 

I appreciated that Furman assumes that the women reading her book can grasp the deep and rich gospel teaching she presents. Her writing is both approachable and beautiful but in no way simplified for “mommy brains.” She sets out to offer real hope for the physically, emotionally, and spiritually painful work of mothering, and she knows that it only comes through a more than surface-level understanding of the gospel. 

My daughter’s middle name is Hope, and there’s a plaque on her wall that reads, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19). Labor with Hope anchors its hope—for parents and their children—in the only safe harbor, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Photo courtesy Sarah Wisniewski

Learning, Teaching, Writing, and Women

As a writing major in college, I took a bunch of classes in literature and literary theory. In my junior year, I also picked up an elective called How to Read the Bible, focused on biblical scholarship. 

They turned out to be basically the same skillset: You consider the themes and structure of the text, its historical context, what else that author has written, and opinions from other scholars. Yet my literature classes were full of women, while the biblical studies class was mostly men.  

Women have the same capacity as men for deep study, informed and reasoned discussion, and presentation of learning. These talents, in both sexes, are a gift to the individual and also to the body of Christ. 

In churches like ours that follow the biblical teaching that women are not “to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12), though, it can feel like there’s no outlet for a woman to share what she has learned. 

Encouragement for women

Scripture makes at least one thing clear on the subject of women in the ministry of the church: Women’s voices are valuable and needed for the building up of the whole church. 

Women are commanded to teach

Paul, in a letter to another young pastor, instructs that “Older women … are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3-5).

Women are instructed to pass on what they learn to younger women. Paul highlights the snowball effect of investing in the spiritual growth of other women: A woman benefits herself; she loves and builds up her household–and she is even granted the honor of upholding the integrity of God’s own reputation. 

Women’s voices are not only for women

Men can also benefit from the insights and wisdom of women. We’re told that “when Priscilla and Aquila heard [Apollos preaching], they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Priscilla, wife to Aquila, is included in both the hearing and the explaining. 

Priscilla knew more than the man in the pulpit. She used her godly wisdom to instruct one who was already “competent in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24), so that the gospel truth would be declared. Her contribution mattered in the kingdom of God; we find out later that Apollos’ teaching gained a large following (I Corinthians 3:4-5). Priscilla’s example demonstrates that there are appropriate avenues for a woman to instruct and even correct a man.

A need in the church

Our denomination, the PCA, has recognized that many of its churches are not encouraging women to serve to their full ability. Churches have tended to be “focused on what women cannot do rather than [on] fostering a biblically informed culture of what women are called to do” (WSMC report, Chapter 5).

The PCA commissioned the Women Serving in the Ministry of the Church (WSMC) study committee in 2016 “to pursue and equip the women of the church for every biblical role of service open to them” (WSMC report, Chapter 1). The committee submitted its report in 2017, including several recommendations to all PCA churches, detailed in Chapter 5 (pp. 58-63). 

The whole report is worth a read, to understand the value, biblical precedent, and bounds of women’s activities in the church. The thrust of the report is toward recognizing all the possible contributions women can make to the church. One opportunity that our church is pleased to offer is the WPCA blog. 

Write for the blog! 

I encourage any member to share on the blog, but this call is particularly to women. The church–our church–needs your wisdom, biblical insight, and experience. I hope the previous encouragements have eased any fears of overstepping biblical roles, but I realize there are other reasons people may hold back. 

I don’t have anything worth saying. Did the sermon strike you just so this week? Did something in your personal reading make you think? A blog doesn’t need to be a comprehensive analysis of a topic; in fact, smaller observations often make for more readable articles. I’ve found that I learn more by sitting down to write on a topic than if I simply study it for my own knowledge. 

I’m not trained in biblical scholarship. You have the Holy Spirit in you, teaching you through Scripture. There are plenty of Bible study tools out there (Knowable Word’s OIA method has been taught at our church), as well as commentaries for free online, for purchase, or for borrowing from our pastors. Study and write with prayer, and trust God to defend his truth. (Also, an editor will read your work and catch any blatant heresy.)

I’m not a writer. Writing is just thinking on paper. If you have an idea, jot down some notes and see where it goes. Ryan, as editor of the blog, or another writer can help with the writing. You could even co-write a piece with someone else to take the pressure off of you. 

Blogs are too high-tech for me. Write it by hand! I volunteer to type it up for you. Writers for the blog are not responsible for any of the techy stuff like formatting and posting articles. 

The WPCA blog exists for members of the church to share with one another what God is revealing to us. Anybody can write for the blog: men and women, pastors or lay people, the highly educated or the self-taught. We’d love to hear what God has taught you!

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Who Should Read Proverbs 31

“An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” So begins the description of the Proverbs 31 woman, familiar to Christian women and girls as the pinnacle of biblical womanhood.

Except—Proverbs 31 is not addressed to women.

In a 2018 article for Fathom Magazine, The Proverbs 31 Husband, Rachel Darnall points out that the entire chapter, including the passage about women, is addressed from King Lemuel’s mother to Lemuel himself, instructing him how to be a good man and a good king.

“The instruction at the conclusion is not ‘See that your wife conducts herself this way’ or ‘Find such a woman,’” Darnall writes. “The only direct instruction in the excellent wife discourse is this: ‘Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates’ (Proverbs 31:30–31).”

Freedom from Poor Applications

Redirected to a male audience, the exhortation in the excellent wife discourse shifts from “Women, do these things to be considered good” to “Men, value these qualities in women.” 

This frees women from some stifling misapplications. Proverbs 31 is neither an instruction manual to women nor a scorecard of their worth. It doesn’t teach women how to be good enough to earn a husband, respect, or acceptance by God.

Ladies and gentlemen, I can sew on a button, but I will never “make linen garments and sell them” (Proverbs 31:24). Will I never be an excellent wife?

Such misapplications create a false correlation between the perceived quality of a woman and the level of respect she deserves. If the excellent wife is to be praised in the gates (Proverbs 31:31), is the sub-par wife to be shamed in her home?

A woman’s worth is found in being created in the image of God: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

The world tells us a woman’s worth is in her beauty, her career, her number of sexual partners, her health, or her popularity on social media. The church community has its own false standards: At various stages of life, women earn worth through being married, bearing children, virginity, homeschooling, teaching Sunday school, or having the best dish at the potluck. These are lies. Women, you are valuable and worthy of respect because you were crafted by God’s hand, a reflection of his own image. 

If she is a sister in Christ, a woman’s worth is further grounded in having been “bought with a price” and adopted by God as a “fellow heir with Christ” (I Corinthians 6:20, Romans 8:17). The death and resurrection of Jesus makes her more than “good enough,” and no amount of weaving, vineyard planting, or purple dyeing can strengthen or weaken that.

The Value of the Excellent Wife

“She is more precious than jewels” is a statement of value. If every woman has inherent worth given by God, then what makes the excellent wife so valuable? King Lemuel’s mom answers: “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (Proverbs 31:30).

The specific activities listed, such as planting vineyards or weaving cloth, point beyond their cultural context to godly qualities. We have many gifted seamstresses in our church. I’m sorry ladies; quilting is not a fruit of the Spirit. But your generosity in sharing your talent absolutely is!

Take, for example, verse 14: “She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar.” This woman shows wisdom as well as care for her family by planning ahead, shopping around, maybe ordering in bulk, to steward her family’s resources well.  

Or consider Proverbs 31:16: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” This woman demonstrates initiative, commitment, and follow-through. She not only makes a savvy purchase, but she also capitalizes on her investment by launching a business that requires her continued oversight, in order to generate revenue for her household. 

The traits in Proverbs 31 are elsewhere in Scripture addressed to all believers, not just women. Paul encourages industriousness (2 Thessalonians 3:10-11); James urges us to seek wisdom (James 1:5). Jesus in the Gospels “opens [his] hand to the poor and reaches out [his] hands to the needy” (Proverbs 31:20).

What God declares valuable in women is the same thing that is valuable in men: godly character.

Proverbs 31 is for You 

Understanding this passage as a meditation on excellence rather than a list of instructions opens applications for every reader.

As Darnall points out, the direct instruction in the passage is to husbands, to notice and praise these qualities in their wives. She explores more applications within marriage in her article.

Single men seeking wives should use these qualities when considering a third date.

Women do well to dwell on what God has labeled excellent and pursue these qualities.

Anyone who knows at least one woman should encourage these qualities in the women around them. When water cooler talk turns to women, men can direct their conversation toward recognizing these qualities in their female peers. Those in leadership may entrust greater responsibility to women who show these qualities. Married women can commend these qualities in their single friends who don’t receive the same encouragement from a spouse. 

The wisdom of Proverbs—all of its chapters—is a gift from God to all of his people. God has not only redeemed us by his Son and given us his Spirit to keep us from sin; he has also given us practical advice to promote the well being of ourselves, our households, and our communities.

(And, in case it wasn’t clear, I recommend Darnall’s article.)

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Consider the Sycamore

“How high can the sycamore grow? If you cut it down, then you’ll never know.”

This line from—of all places—Disney’s Pocahontas, has influenced my views on how God’s people should think about and interact with creation, a concept sometimes called creation stewardship.

Can a line from a song glorifying pagan pantheism from a movie about fictionalized history teach us anything true about God or his creation? By itself, no. But placed next to God’s own word about his creation, this lyric distills several aspects of creation stewardship that resonate with me.

Reverence

We don’t believe that “every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name.” But we do believe each one was crafted by God himself, and that alone should inspire in us a reverence for God’s creation.

Scripture shows us God’s passion for his creation. In Genesis 1, God shapes each aspect of creation individually—the stars, the seas, the birds. He could have spoken it all into existence at once, but he chose to tell the story this way, giving special attention to each piece. Later, God prescribed Sabbath years “of solemn rest for the land” (Leviticus 25:5). When they weren’t kept, God exiled Israel to Babylon “until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years” (2 Chronicles 36:21).

Creation doesn’t exist solely for mankind’s use. God made the universe and everything in it to bring glory to himself: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

The value of a sycamore is not found in how many feet of lumber it generates but in how it glorifies its Creator. We show reverence for our Creator when we approach his creation with a sense of awe.

Wonder

The average sycamore tree grows to about 100 feet tall. But that doesn’t really answer the question in the song, does it? The spirit of the question is more about delight and wonder in the world around us.

At Creation, God gave man and woman authority over nature: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

God’s pattern of authority is one of love and service. Consider the teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5, when husbands are given authority over their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

Our charge is to tend to nature, seeking its good. We need to cultivate a sense of wonder at what God has made and a desire to see it flourish.

A Sense of Loss

My grandparents have all passed away, and they took with them bits of now untraceable family history. When did my great-grandparents come over from Czechoslovakia? Which relative built the old grandmother clock? There is a sense of loss in thinking of these things that I’ll “never know.”

There’s a similar sense of loss when a piece of creation disappears: a species goes extinct, a forest is cut down for land development, or a mountaintop is removed for mining. There’s a loss of natural beauty, a loss of habitat, a loss of potential for what could have been.

God has given us the right to use creation’s resources. God gave the plants to Adam and Eve for food (Genesis 1:29) and sanctioned the felling of the cedars of Lebanon for his temple (I Kings 5:5-6). The progression of redemptive history is from Eden to the New Jerusalem, the garden to the city, from untamed to cultivated.  

Sometimes we need to cut down the sycamore. It’s good for paneling, flooring, cabinets, and high-end furniture. (Not great for firewood and also a royal pain to split, according to Google.) We can be grateful to God for the resources we extract from nature while also acknowledging their cost.   

Practical steps

Environmentalism has gotten a bad name among conservative Christians because of its associations with progressive politics and New Age ideas. Creation stewardship doesn’t dictate a particular set of opinions on environmental issues, but it does demand a respect for creation.

Caring for nature doesn’t have to mean hugging trees. We can begin by taking ownership of our consumption. Can we honor God’s gift to us by reusing, recycling, or composting it? Can we avoid generating waste by combining trips in the car, turning out the lights, or choosing products with less disposable packaging? Can we find ways to simply use less?

Creation stewardship is not about saving the planet. God is sovereign over his creation, and humanity will not wipe itself out before his appointed Judgment Day. Creation stewardship is about seeking the welfare of creation out of love for its Creator. It’s about finding joy in how high the sycamore grows, simply because its branches reach up in praise to the Lord.

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The Incarnation of Aaron

It was a rough mom day: Toddler up early, breakfast residue on the table, cold coffee, quick tempers all around. By about 9:30 a.m., I needed a hug. So much so that I scooped up my unruly child and asked for one. 

She peed on me. 

I should have turned to God, should have been like Susanna Wesley (mother of John and Charles) and thrown my apron over my head to pray. But what I wanted was clean clothes and, still, a hug.

Prayer is effective, and the Holy Spirit’s presence is real. But some days you just need something to touch.

God wants us to turn to him in all circumstances, whether crisis or joy. He genuinely cares for us! He also knows that we are physical beings—he made our bodies with their needs and limits. Even Jesus, when he took his most fervent prayer to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, brought friends. 

A Physical Brother

Before Moses was a patriarch, leader of Israel, and Scripture author, he was a shepherd offering three separate objections to God. Out of excuses, he finally asked God: “Please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13). 

God’s response is equal parts comforting and humbling: “Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart’” (Exodus 4:14, emphasis added).

Aaron, led by God, was already on his way to Moses, probably before the bush began to burn. If Moses had trusted God and accepted his mission, Aaron still would have come to aid him. God knew that tangible, personal support is important for physical beings. God himself declared: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). 

We are certainly to seek comfort, wisdom, and solutions from God through prayer and Scripture as a first resort. God often responds to those prayers through people: friends, the local church, spouses, doctors, and therapists. Sometimes he uses dogs, warm blankets, or coffee. Much like Aaron, our help may be on its way before we think to ask. 

A Physical God

Aaron appears in the desert as an incarnate demonstration of God’s presence and provision. In that way, he is a type of Christ. 

God knows our need for physical connection so intimately that he made himself incarnate, in a body that sleeps and cries and eats, in the form of his son Jesus: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). 

Jesus knows our weakness, sympathizes with our suffering, and stands with us in temptation, because he has physically experienced it all as we have. Ours is not an abstract God out of touch with our lives, or a haughty God who refuses to interact with our menial existence. Ours is a loving God who humbled himself to experience life in the world he himself created. God became physical, so we can trust that he understands our physical needs and desires.

A Physical Savior

Aaron was later appointed the first high priest of Israel (Hebrews 5:4), the intercessor between the people and God. But he, like all his successors, was an imperfect high priest: he had to sacrifice for his own sins, in addition to those of the people (Hebrews 5:3). 

As our perfect high priest, Jesus lived through the range of human experiences but was without sin. He then offered up his own body as the physical sacrifice, the shedding of blood, that was necessary to forgive our sin and fully restore our relationship with God (Hebrews 9:22). 

Because Jesus physically lived and physically died (and physically resurrected and ascended!), we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). 

The weather is turning crisp. It’s the season for warm drinks and cozy sweaters. Thank God for these tactile comforts! Call out to God in your struggles—but also maybe call or text someone. Man wasn’t meant to be alone. The help God sends may be a spiritual peace, a miraculous intervention, or simply a friend to hug.

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Faith that Lives, Works that Justify

In March I joined a handful of WPCA women at the Dwelling in Scripture women’s conference (You can learn more about the conference in Patty’s blog). The aim of the conference was to develop a statement about God from an assigned passage in James. The God-centric framework pushed me to engage a familiar passage in a fresh way, but a stronger theme dominated my passage.

The book was written by the apostle James in Jerusalem to Christians scattered by persecution with virtually no support network. It would have been easy for them to claim a private faith that didn’t affect their lives. We, even with the benefit of an established church and a relatively accommodating culture, have the same temptation. James exhorts his readers to live as those who genuinely believe that the man Jesus was the Son of God who lived, died, rose, ascended, and will return.

James is full of practical applications: endure trials, don’t show favoritism, control the tongue, pray in faith. My passage, the familiar “faith apart from works is dead” passage (James 2:14–26), shows that these works are not an optional add-on to Christianity. A faith that does not include works is not a faith that saves.

“Can that faith save him?”

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14, emphasis added). James is introducing a question of eternal life-or-death consequences. Are you saved or not? The implications are twofold:

  1. One can claim “faith” and not be saved.
  2. There is a faith that saves!

The remainder of the passage presents some symptoms of false faith and then offers two case studies of true, saving faith.

Invisible Faith

Faith that does not save hides behind excuses, debates, and platitudes. “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). The hypothetical rebuttal here tries to logic its way out of works, but it creates a false dichotomy. It assumes that faith and works can exist independently. James counters with a slightly cheeky challenge to show faith without works—an impossibility. One’s actions are not just evidence of faith but faith itself made visible. An invisible faith is no faith at all.

Striking uncomfortably close to my own heart, James also points out that reciting doctrinal statements is not the same thing as works, and certainly not the same thing as faith. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). Demons—the literal forces of evil—can recite truths about God, but without acts of repentance and obedience, their knowledge only condemns them. God values our actions, not solely our doctrine.

Faith that saves

James treats faith and works as more tightly intertwined than we are used to talking about. He uses them almost interchangeably, so much so that he says:

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

All the Reformed people are suddenly sweating.

Faith and works are two sides of a coin and just as inseparable. James says both Abraham and Rahab were “justified by works,” but he unites their works inextricably with their faith (James 2:21, 25).

When Abraham sacrificed Isaac, “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22). His faith was incomplete without his works, and his works were hollow without faith active in them. As it stands, Abraham’s worked-out faith was credited to him as righteousness, justifying him before God (James 2:23).

Rahab the Gentile prostitute may seem like an unlikely candidate for the Hall of Faith, but nevertheless Hebrews 11:31 states: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” Rahab did not perish (i.e., she was saved) because she welcomed the spies, by faith. Faith, works, and salvation are all tied up together.  

But, Sola Fide, right?

Our church, as part of the Reformed tradition, leans heavily on the rich biblical truth of Ephesians 2:8–9, that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Faith that saves is a gift of God! But it is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture to assume that works have no part in it.

Consider the very next verse: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Faith for salvation is a gift of God—and so are the works that accompany it!

We are powerless to enliven dead faith through works; this is just salvation by works by another name. As recipients of the gift of true, living faith that leads to salvation, we are to gratefully accept the works that accompany it.

There is a warning in James to examine your faith for signs of life, but primarily his heart is to encourage his readers to do good works—such as those found in the rest of his letter—joyfully as those who have been saved and await the return of our King!

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Your Kingdom Come: God’s Patience and Ours in Light of Eternity

We pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” We strive to live in the reality of Christ’s saving work, doing good works, loving our neighbors, and spreading the good news. And yet every day another news story: Abortion legalized up to delivery, racist behavior defended, people fleeing genocide, sexual abuse exposed even in the church. The kingdom feels no closer. I don’t know about you, but I feel weary. How long will God allow this to continue?

God is playing the long game, much longer than we can comprehend. He is doing a work forged before time—or rather, before time was a concept. Peter reveals this work: He writes to believers to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15a).

(Keep a tab open to 2 Peter 3:8-15. This post will refer to it frequently.)

Patience is a divine attribute. God does not rise to the standard of patience; rather, patience is virtuous because it is how God relates to time. The eternal God is neither constrained by time (2 Peter 3:8) nor fears its ticking minutes. But we are dust. The passage of time weighs heavily on us humans. Thirty seconds to microwave her lunch is agony to my toddler. As beings created within time and cursed at the Fall, the eternal perspective of God comes unnaturally to us. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in us when we exercise patience, holding loosely to this life. We cannot be eternal as God is, but we trust that the eternal God is at work for our good (Romans 8:28).

God at work in Habakkuk

Habakkuk felt the strain of enduring while sin appeared to reign. He looked around at Judah and saw destruction, violence, perverted justice, and the wicked oppressing the righteous (Hab. 1:2-4). “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2).

God responded that he was doing a work: first a work of repentance among his people through the judgment of Babylon’s invasion (Hab. 1:6); and then—much later—a work of damnation upon evil Babylon for their crimes. Habakkuk would not live to see Babylon’s demise, but God told him to be patient: “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to its end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3).

Slowness is a human perception of time. Slowness feels each second building into minutes, the minutes into years, and the years stretching into a lifetime. The Bible instructs us to replace this perception of slowness with patience: If it seems slow, wait for it.

God at work in redemptive history

Peter contrasts these divine and human perspectives on time: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you…that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). What we perceive as slowness is a work in progress. God is calling all those he has predestined (Romans 8:30), and his patience will endure until the last lost sheep is brought into the fold.

But God’s patience does end.  

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief … and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). Those who mistake God’s patience for permission are condemned by the very time offered to them in kindness. Each hour they do not repent, they are “storing up wrath for [themselves]” (Romans 2:5). Like he did in the days of Habakkuk, the Lord is doing a double work: First of repentance, then of damnation. Mercy, then justice.

God has endured the presence of sin in his once-perfect creation since the Fall in order to complete this foreordained work: To send a Savior to redeem from their sins a people for himself. Thousands of years stretched from the first promise that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15) to the advent of the Messiah; two thousand more years have passed since Jesus promised to return soon to enact his kingdom (Revelation 22:20); and a million more years may pass, or Jesus may return before you finish reading.

In any case, we are assured that God is at work, calling every one of his people to repentance; that he will not delay his justice against wickedness a moment longer than he has appointed; and that when he is done, the redeemed will live in “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

But we are human. It feels slow. In addition to praying for the Spirit’s fruit of patience, what can we do while we wait?

Our work in the present age

We may lament. The Christian life is not one of aggressive cheerfulness in the face of pain and sorrow. Creation groans at the brokenness of a world marred by sin, and so may we (Romans 8:22-23). One model for lament is the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11. As those who have died in Christ, these (literal or representative) souls have been sanctified, so their lament is pure.

They cry: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). This lament first recognizes God’s sovereignty and his character, then pleads for the Lord to act in a way consistent with his character.

We must also live by faith. The Lord told Habakkuk, “Behold, [the wicked’s] soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). This faith includes believing that God’s justice will prevail, as well as trusting in his promise to save his people and establish his kingdom.

Peter elaborates on how we should live as people of faith: “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Peter 3:14). Earlier he calls believers to “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (from 2 Peter 3:11-12). We pray, “Your kingdom come,” and we have the opportunity to hasten that work. We do so by enacting God’s will on earth, living holy and godly lives as well as seeking out the redeemed by calling others to repentance.

There’s a potential pitfall here: To be so reassured by God’s eternal justice that we forsake the pursuit of justice on earth. Just the opposite—because we know the kingdom is coming, our desire for holiness and godliness should motivate us to seek the will of God on earth, including pursuing justice and opposing oppression (Isaiah 1:16-17; 58:6-7; Obadiah 1:10-11; James 1:27; 2:14-16).

After reading this, you’ll likely see some new report of corrupt politics, violence, or abuse. Feel free to lament that sin taints everything we see, but also remember to rejoice that God is sovereignly working out his plan to overthrow evil and establish his kingdom, where righteousness dwells.

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God Is in the Fish

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Yesterday I cried at a kids’ song. We were in the car going to visit my parents, and somewhere along Route 519, this song that I’ve heard a dozen times overwhelmed me.

The song was “Nothing Much in Tarshish” from the album Why Not Sea Monsters?: Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures by Justin Roberts, a collection of charming and inventive, if not always strictly accurate, musical retellings of Bible stories. This one recounts the story of Jonah, the Israelite prophet, who “on the way to Tarshish, got swallowed by a large fish.” Roberts sings that

God is in the fish
It all comes down to this
It’s so dark, dark, dark
It’s so cold, cold, cold
But there’s more love, love, love
Than you can hold, hold, hold, hold

There’s so much biblical truth compressed into these lines. Jonah was indeed in the dark and cold. When Jonah prayed from the belly of the fish, he described the waves closing over him like bars and (particularly revolting to me) seaweed wrapping around his head (Jonah 2:5). Beyond this literal darkness, Jonah was in the darkness of his own sin and outright rebellion against God. God had sent Jonah to prophesy to Nineveh, but Jonah instead took a ship to Tarshish. He intended to flee “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). For those like me without a strong grasp on ancient geography, here’s a useful map. Tarshish is in Spain, much further away from Jonah’s home than Nineveh, in the opposite direction, across the entire Mediterranean Sea. Had Jonah followed God’s command, he wouldn’t even have been on the sea, but now due to his sin he was trapped beneath it.

It is out of this drowning darkness that God rescued Jonah into the belly of the fish. Jonah prayed, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (Jonah 2:7-8). Jonah recognized that he had not successfully fled God’s presence; God was at work in the storm, in the sea, and in the fish. God pursued Jonah through his rebellion. Jonah described this relentless pursuit as “steadfast love.” This is God’s covenant love at work!

Now, the fish, arguably, was still dark. We’re told Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights before he prayed (Jonah 1:17). Like Jonah, we can be stubborn, stiff-necked people. We may suffer under God’s discipline for a time, but as the song says, “God is in the fish!” His purpose is always to pursue his people with covenant love, to bring us to repentance, and to show us that he is our only salvation. It took three days in the dark, but Jonah learned: “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9).

Jonah was not the only one in the dark in this story. Roberts sings about “lonely Nineveh.” “Lonely” is not the word Jonah would have used to describe the thriving capital city of the brutal Assyrian empire. He might have used “wicked” or “godless” or “irredeemable.” God described them differently. “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11). The city was utterly ignorant of God—true darkness indeed. Jonah hated them for their wickedness, but God pitied them. God had no covenant relationship with Nineveh, no reason to offer them repentance. Sin doesn’t deserve a second chance; God could have rained brimstone on Nineveh and remained just. But in his infinite mercy, he sent Jonah, and, after the least inspiring sermon ever, “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5), and God relented.

The book of Jonah foretells the vast scope of Christ’s work on the cross. It reaches the ignorant and pitiable, the backsliding and hypocritical, the rebellious and hateful. It reaches those that God has no business saving.

This is why I cried as the fence posts passed by on Route 519. God loved Jonah in his sin with relentless, pursuing covenant love. God loved Nineveh in their utterly lost state with mercy even for those who were not yet his people. If God can love Jonah, and God can love Nineveh, God can certainly love me and you.

What a beautiful truth to sing to our children and to our own hearts—that we will sin, and run away from God, and God will discipline us, but God is in the fish. His steadfast love pursues us through the dark.

Photo credit: Justin Roberts